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Banks become the new art galleries

February 23, 2007 When John Rossell started Heritage Bank of Commerce in 1994, he knew he wanted to use the business bank's location to showcase local fine art. But what started as a personal passion turned into art shows that became a boon for business. "Those events were always a very useful outreach for the bank because people who would attend were always very much our target audience," says Rossell. "So it's not just legitimate outreach effort in the community, it was also very good for business." Rossell is heading up a team seeking approval to begin a proposed bank in Lafayette where he also hopes to show art. But the banks Rossell has left continue art programs Rossell established and at least one new bank is following Rossell's lead. All of the banks say installing fine art draws new and often deep-pocketed customers to the banks and helps bulk up their community-friendly reputations. "We're tapping into a new group of people to see the art who wouldn't otherwise set foot in the bank," says Mary Anne Carson, senior vice president and director of marketing for Santa Cruz County Bank. Santa Cruz County Bank is showing at its three banking locations an exhibition titled Reaching Out, which includes works from the Museum of Art & History's permanent collection. Santa Cruz County Bank organizes its shows itself using exclusively local Santa Cruz County art. It also hosts receptions. Focus Bank has partnered with Triton Museum and will install pieces of Triton's permanent collection, to be rotated out on occasion. Both Santa Cruz and Heritage sell the works for local artists and do not collect any fees. "It's a large undertaking, with lots of moving pieces and parts," Carson says. "But it's well worth the exposure and community that it builds." Big national banks such as Bank of America and Chase Manhattan own their own art collections and their own galleries. Bank of America opened a gallery this year to mark a Wilmington, Del., bank branch opening and to show off some of the works it acquired when it purchased MBNA America. The bank also owns works by artists including Andy Warhol, David Hockney and others. In Silicon Valley, community banks show art in their work spaces, exposing local art to daily viewing by customers and employees. Heritage uses an independent curator to put together shows of local artist's works and then hosts receptions for those artists. The bank has partnered with local universities, the local magnet art high school and local museums. Jane Salvin was skeptical when Rossell first approached her to help him start the Heritage Bank's art program, the first of its kind in Silicon Valley. But his idea of setting high standards for the quality of art the bank would show, while tapping into artists that weren't getting a lot of exposure, won her over. Then she had to win over the artists. Heritage debuted its art space with its first reception featuring the abstract landscapes of local artist Patricia Sherwood. "They were perfect for our space but when Jane and I got them on the wall, we realized then we needed something else," Rossell says. The bank brought in a collection of more than two dozen motorcycles owned by bank customer Dave Scoffone, including one formerly owned by actor Steve McQueen and one that author T.E. Lawrence -- "Lawrence of Arabia" -- was riding when he was killed in a crash in 1935. "It was amazing the way they came off against the painting," Rossell says. "It created enough of a stir that we had the beginnings of an art program." Salvin at the time was the curator of the DP Fong Gallery and her ties to the artist community were deep. She called on artist friends for the first few exhibits. "They were my friends; they had no choice," she says. And at the new bank in Lafayette, which hasn't yet received permission to organize from regulators, Rossell plans to start another bank art program though he insists that getting the bank up and running comes first. Twelve years later, Heritage owns some of its own pieces and seven years since the departure of Rossell, the bank continues its art program. "We're really a business bank and we cater to local business people," says Heritage Chairman Bill del Biaggio, who continues the art program at Heritage. "And a lot of these owners and operators are high-net-worth individuals and it kind of fits what they like." Heritage holds art receptions for each new show it installs, about two to three per year. And, even since Rossell's departure, the bank always hosts a new show to coincide with an anniversary party, this year to be held May 24. Banks are well-suited to hold art since they have elaborate security measures already in place due to the amount of money that could be stored on the premises. A normal reception costs about $1,000 and del Biaggio says he hasn't had to pay for separate insurance to cover the art since the bank already is heavily insured. "Actually it's a very inexpensive thing for us," he says. "We get a lot more bang for [our buck than] what it's costing us, in foot traffic and if you talk to a lot of people in the arts, they regard the bank as being good for the arts. And there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's good for the bank's reputation." Focus Bank, a new startup in downtown San Jose, a stone's throw from Heritage headquarters, has partnered with Triton Museum. The museum will use Focus's office as a satellite location to show art that most of the time is kept in storage, says Preston Metcalf, Triton's associate curator. "It allows them to support the community and it expands our audience greatly," he says. LINDSAY RIDDELL covers finance, venture capital and sports management for the Business Journal. She can be reached at 408-299-1829.

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